In relation to the subject matter of this essay, the author would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we settle is the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of our nation’s Indigenous peoples. For anyone residing in Madison, Wisconsin, it is important to know that the Ho-Chunk Nation has strong cultural connections to the land. This land acknowledgment does not exist in past tense or only in a historical context, but rather in an act of reconciliation.
He’s hard not to miss. On the basketball court, he wears the number 24 on his chest and makes putting the ball through the net look effortless even with the clock winding down. This uncanny ability to shoot the ball in the most critical moments has earned him the nickname “Klutch Koenig.” But more than that, Bronson Koenig, the starting senior point guard at the University of Wisconsin–Madison during the 2016-2017 season, proudly embraces the name of Native American, belonging to the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, as part of his identity. Even his social media biographies read, “Lightskinned Native American.” During the last four years at UW, Koenig has not only grown in his understanding of the sport, but more importantly, he’s grown in his knowledge of his heritage, using his platform to raise awareness concerning local and national issues regarding the injustices of and atrocities committed against Native Americans, both past and present.
The erasure of the history of Native Americans began in the United States when the land’s original Indigenous peoples were forced to face the “realities of having their lands, cultures, and governmental authorities simultaneously attacked, denied, and reconstructed by colonial societies and states,” a process that peaked during the nineteenth century (Alfred 599). Tribal communities once flourished before settlers invaded Native lands, pushing tribes to secluded reservations and forcing the formation of treaties, most of which have now been violated by the United States government. Such violations seem to be commonly disregarded, and like the majority of Americans, Koenig’s knowledge of Native history has some gaps, primarily because it is rarely taught in schools (Koenig). For this reason, Native American leaders and activists continue to rebuild Indigenous nations “through the assertion of rights to self-government, cultural revitalization, the protection of natural resources, tribal control of education, and the development of reservation economies” (Kiel 9). But most Americans have failed to take notice. Nonetheless, leaders such as Bronson Koenig continue the tradition of activism to address issues concerning mistreatment and cultural awareness, both on campus and nationwide.
For a large institution, racial diversity on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus is quite lacking. In the fall of 2015, Koenig was just one of 62 students who self-identified as Native American out of an undergraduate population of nearly 30,000 (“Student Enrollment”). Nonetheless, Koenig points to the involvement of students and the surrounding community in protests and rallies against the “nation’s hostile treatment of its original people” beginning more than 40 years ago and helping to shed light upon ongoing issues Native Americans still face in modern society. Awareness about Native American mistreatment has long had its place on campus, and the past and present actions taken to end oppression have inspired activists such as Koenig to step into the spotlight (Koenig). His actions can be linked to a larger narrative pertaining to the many efforts taken to combat Native American repression.
A piece of that narrative has links to Wounded Knee. On December 29, 1890, the last major United States military effort to subdue the Native American populations of North America occurred at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota, where nearly 300 Native Americans were killed in what has become known as the Wounded Knee Massacre (“Open Letter”). More than 80 years later, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) led a protest at Wounded Knee, and that same year in November of 1973, Clyde H. Bellecourt, a Native American and Wounded Knee veteran of the protest, as well as a co-founder of AIM came to the UW–Madison campus to lead a student rally. He spoke on behalf of “the continuing struggles of Wounded Knee and Indian People,” and in support of Native American protesters (“Wounded Knee Rally”). During the same academic year, a booth designed to inform students about Wounded Knee and the injustices Indigenous people face was displayed near Memorial Union for Native American Week (“Native American Week”). Both instances indicate the presence of Native American activism and student acknowledgment of the marginalized group in the past. This creates connections to more recent recognition of Native concerns on campus.
Nearly 40 years after the American Indian Movement exposed the campus to issues of underrepresented students, minoritized students at UW-Madison took to Twitter to bring recent racial incidents into the public spotlight. Using the hashtag “#TheRealUW,” students, faculty, staff, and alumni shared stories and expressed disappointment over the 23 hate and bias incidents that were officially reported in just one semester (Schneider). Later, there was an opportunity to showcase personal narratives about racial injustices on campus at the Chazen Museum of Art. The event on April 22, 2016, was titled Unhood Yourself: The Real UW One Day Exhibition. All photographs in the exhibition depict minoritized students holding a whiteboard with racial phrases that have been said to that individual. Several Native American students recall some of these hurtful phrases, in which the whiteboards read, “You’re Native American? I didn’t think you all still even EXISTED!?!” and “I am NOT here for free. I do NOT get [money] from casinos. I am Native American and my culture is not yours to mock” (“#TheRealUW”).
Koenig, too, has experienced the kinds of slurs highlighted in the exhibit. He reports being asked, “Did I wear feathers?” and “Do my parents run a casino?” (Koenig). The most prevailing impression that these photographs and questions give is that racial discrimination is still very apparent on campus despite public acknowledgment of injustices and efforts made by activists to combat prejudice.
Throughout the years, there have been students at UW-Madison who have aimed to improve the visibility of systematic discrimination and Native American issues on campus. According to the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA), the student organization Wunk Sheek was founded in 1968 “to contribute productive dialogue among the concerns of Indian Country and the non-Indian world, to promote traditional values, and to share the richness and diversity of pluralistic societal systems” (Saiz). Wunk Sheek remains as an organization on campus with the goal of reducing the differences between the two groups. To do so, the organization holds two large powwows, traditional Native American ceremonies, each year and several other events for American Indian Heritage Month in November to continue “its original mission of outreach and inclusion” (Schlecht). Wunk Sheek is one of several organizations that welcome both Native and non-Native students to help end marginalized behavior on campus.
Alongside student life, UW-Madison has taken an active role to academically recognize the depth of Native American cultures on its campus. In 1972, with the encouragement of former Native American students, the university established a “Native American Studies” program intended to facilitate the recruitment of Native American faculty to develop courses relating to the area of study. Roughly fifteen years later, the program name changed to “American Indian Studies,” and a certificate (similar to a minor) was offered beginning in 1997 (“History”). The certificate remains available at the university in an effort to provide students and staff with resources to develop an academic and cultural interest in American Indians. Koenig himself has taken advantage of the department. He says, “I have sought out as many classes as I could that had to do with Native American issues” because of his curiosity in his own culture and finding who he is as a person (Koenig). The importance of sharing and learning about Native American cultures continues to be significant to the university, and obviously to Koenig as well.
Beyond academics, in August 2012, the Division of University Housing held the grand opening of Dejope Residence Hall, a five-story complex located near Lake Mendota designed to fit the needs of modern student living for the undergraduate community. Dejope means “four lakes” in the Ho-Chunk language, which references the four lakes in the Madison area that include Lake Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegonsa (Housing). Because Indigenous people have inhabited the area for over 12,000 years, UW-Madison has more effigy mounds—raised piles of earth used for burial grounds that are sacred to Native Americans—and more Native archaeological sites than any other university in the world (“A History of Madison”). For this reason, the Dejope building stands in recognition of the eleven federally recognized American Indian Nations in Wisconsin (Housing). As long as the building remains standing, it will act as an important reminder for all students, faculty, and the community that Native American culture and history will always hold a place in Madison.
Meanwhile, on the national level, news regarding the controversial oil pipeline from Dakota Access, LLC, motivated action by Wisconsin basketball star Bronson Koenig. The pipeline is planned to stretch over 1,000 miles in length and run near the Standing Rock reservation, home to the Hunkpapa Sioux Tribe, in North Dakota. Final plans for the pipeline were announced in January 2016, and by April, members of tribes worldwide stood in solidarity against its advancement. Protesters claim the nearly four-billion-dollar project would destroy ancient burial grounds and poison the water supply of the reservation and millions of other people (“Dakota Access Pipeline Facts”; Koenig).
As Standing Rock headlines emerged, Koenig felt an urgency to make the 700-mile journey from Wisconsin to North Dakota to join thousands of Indigenous people in the fight of protection. Koenig has taken it upon himself to learn about his heritage through classes and professors while at UW–Madison. In doing so, he uncovered struggles in understanding his own identity. Koenig defines himself as a “light-skinned Native American, [having] a white father and a mother who is Ho-Chunk.” In his article published by The Players’ Tribune in December 2016, Koenig writes that he often feels “like a minority within a minority. Not Native enough. Not white enough. Like a stranger in two lands.” He continues by stating that his struggles of understanding this identity was one of the reasons he felt the need to visit Standing Rock. Koenig recalls feeling a connection and a sense of comfort in “a valley of Native people” (Koenig). This journey to Standing Rock has had more impact than what was originally expected.
Koenig didn’t travel to Standing Rock to be a role model, but that’s exactly what he became. Following one of Koenig’s community basketball clinics, a young Native American participant asked if Koenig grew up with any Native American role models. Koenig responded by stating he didn’t, particularly because “they weren’t celebrated in popular cultures” (Koenig). His intentions of going to Standing Rock were to help, join the protest, and fight with his people. But Koenig soon realized that “if I could be someone who even one kid from Standing Rock looked up to, I’d be prouder of that than of anything I had ever done— or might ever do— on the basketball court,” taking pride in the fact that the kids at Standing Rock were seeing someone succeed, both on and off the court, “who looked a little like they did” (Koenig). It takes a great deal of courage and pride to stand for what one believes in, but Koenig took his platform and showed his Native American community that nothing—not even attending a prestigious university and playing division one basketball—is impossible, taking pride to a whole new level.
The Native American community continues to fight injustices imposed upon by outside entities with action from individuals such as Koenig and institutions such as UW-Madison, which give light to issues and hope to others in a time of such darkness. Local and national issues are now more than ever being addressed publicly with the help of those who are affected the most. The implementation of organizations, programs, and protests speaks volumes about how far the Native American community has come in the face of inequality, but also how far there is yet to go, requiring further influence from individuals and institutions to promote much needed education, understanding, and involvement in activism. In the wise words of Koenig, “We must all protect it…whatever our heritage” (Koenig). Research shows the cruel physical, emotional, and mental attacks Native Americans have faced and may continue to face, but numbers don’t seem to speak as loudly as actions from Native activists, especially those with a platform from an impressive academic and basketball career such as Koenig.
“A History of Madison.” Morgridge Center for Public Service, http://morgridge.wiscweb.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2017/02/History_of_Madison.pdf. Accessed 4 Mar. 2017.
Alfred, Taiaiake, and Jeff Corntassel. “Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism.” Government and Opposition, vol. 40, no. 4, 2005, pp. 597-614.
Barajas, Joshua. “Police deploy water hoses, tear gas against Standing Rock protesters.” PBS News Hour, 21 Nov. 2016, www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/police-deploy-water-hoses-tear-gas-against-standing-rock-protesters. Accessed 1 Mar. 2017.
Dakota Access Pipeline Facts, 2016-2017, daplpipelinefacts.com. Accessed 4 Mar. 2017
“History” American Indian Studies: University of Wisconsin Madison, mindian.wisc.edu/history. Accessed 4 Mar. 2017.
Housing, Division of University. “Dejope Residence Hall” Dejope Hall. University of Wisconsin Archives, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin. Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.
Javier, Carla. “A Timeline of the Year of Resistance at Standing Rock.” Splinter News, 14 Dec. 2016, splinternews.com/a-timeline-of-the-year-of-resistance-at-standing-rock-1794269727. Accessed 4 Mar. 2017.
Kiel, Doug. “Rebuilding Indigenous Nations.” Expedition, vol. 55, no. 3, Winter 2013, pp. 9-11.
Koenig, Bronson. “What I Found in Standing Rock.” The Players’ Tribune, 1 Dec. 2016, www.theplayerstribune.com/bronson-koenig-wisconsin-basketball-standing-rock/. Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.
“Native American Week.” University of Wisconsin Archives, University of Wisconsin, Madison,
Wisconsin. Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.
“Open Letter for Educators.” Wounded Knee: The Museum, http://www.woundedkneemuseum.org. Accessed 4 Mar. 2017
Saiz, Jan. “Rich in Tradition.” Wunk Sheek (WS). University of Wisconsin Archives, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin. Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.
Schlecht, Chelsea. “Wunk Sheek.” ¬Wisconsin Alumni Association, 21 Apr. 2015, www.uwalumni.com/news/wunk-sheek/. Accessed 1 Mar. 2017.
Schneider, Pat. “#TheRealUW: A social media movement is forcing UW-Madison to confront its race problems.” The Capital Times, 20, Apr. 2016, host.madison.com/ct/news/local/education/university/therealuw-a-social-media-movement-is-forcing-uw-madison-to/article_862905e8-5527-5f4d-ae92-39fe7d767e59.html. Accessed 4 Mar. 2017.
“Student Enrollment by Ethnic Category.” Madison: University of Wisconsin–Madison Academic Planning and Institutional Research. 2015, p. 6, http://apir.wisc.edu/datadigest.htm. Accessed 4 Mar. 2017.
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The objective of our Sequence 3 research project was to identify and explore a “threshold” moment at UW—a moment that transforms one’s thinking and that forever informs one’s perspective—and to relate this moment to a larger national or cultural conversation. Bailey’s exploration of Bronson Koenig’s identity as a Native American student and Native American representation on campus did exactly that. Many students do not know that this university sits on sacred Ho-Chunk land, and Bailey took this acknowledgment of our university’s position to further explore the ugly history of settler colonialism and how UW and its students are attempting to redress these injustices. She very adeptly navigated the discourse surrounding Koenig’s visit to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline by weaving this national concern together with the erasure of Indigenous peoples more broadly in histories of the university.
Though all of the credit is due to Bailey, I worked with her throughout her process of crafting this paper—we talked about proper source citation, about structure and organization, and about how to do justice to such pressing issues that get such little media attention. The paper that she constructed went through many drafts and many reviewers, but in the end, she produced an essay that made a significant contribution to our class’ understanding of Native American representation on campus and that brought together a diverse range of sources into a cohesive whole.
— Jon Isaac
The essence of this essay required research that connected articles from the University of Wisconsin – Madison Archives collection, as well as other online sources, to a larger issue in national spotlight. I was required to use the information I collected from the university to discuss and reflect on the variables that made the connection between this campus and a national topic. At the time, I had great interest in athlete activism, and questioned the various ways in which athletes used a larger platform to speak out about different and important issues in the nation.
As I began the process of researching and writing this essay, I started to find that the sole topic of athlete activism was significantly broad, encompassing athletes of all sports and problems of all dimensions. I went to my instructor for guidance, and decided to narrow my subject matter to one I had followed for several months beforehand and developed keen interest in. This is where I turned to Native American activism at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, where pipeline protests made its way to national headlines, and the connection being a UW-Madison student-athlete’s participation at the reservation. Further research revealed many ties between Native American history, as well as culture, and the UW-Madison campus. I merged the two together, and looking back now, I see that this essay perhaps is not necessarily about using an athlete’s platform to speak about injustice, but rather a personal story with greater depth and ties to this campus and national interests.
The topic may have changed slightly as I progressed, but I nonetheless created an essay that resembles much of my beginning thoughts. As I look back at the process, my only regret is that I didn’t directly interview any Native American individuals associated with the matters discussed throughout the essay. Perhaps this would have provided further insight to injustices that still exist today or offer a foundation for further activism to address the need of more understanding and awareness.
I believe my confidence as a writer grew with this project. I took the comments of my peers and instructor seriously in order to produce a piece of writing I could be completely satisfied with. This was the first essay of my writing career in which I was truly pleased with my work, a result of the fact that I was deeply interested in the Native American aspect of activism, or perhaps using different resources from the archives. I give this essay credit for furthering my interest in written communication and Native American heritage, leading to an academic major change. I may have found an opportunity to combine two interests as a result of an essay I saw through from beginning to end.
— Bailey Curtis
Student Writing Award: Critical Essay